As I make my way towards this coming winter of discontent, my reading is as slow and endless as February. Here I am, in early December, and I’ve read one book this past month. One. Sad. On the other hand, it’s a GREAT book. I read Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, what you’d get if Shirley Jackson had written Downton Abbey, crossed it with James’s “The Turn of the Screw”, and tossed in a touch of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”.
The Little Stranger is one of the most compelling and disorienting novels I’ve ever read and I kind of loved it. At times, I resented it, felt it was built only on relentless plot that remained impenetrable. Yet I couldn’t put it down and resented work, family obligation, and mundane household tasks keeping me from sitting down and reading through to its end.
Set in post-WWII Warwickshire, The Little Stranger is narrated by a country doctor, Dr. Faraday. Of humble origins, Faraday’s parents (long dead when the novel opens) gave up everything to educate him and yet, now he is “risen” above their station, he remains at most a modest success, treating his small-town patients’ ordinary ills and keeping an uninspired bachelor apartment above a store. In his late thirties, his life is circumscribed by his practice and the occasional dinner with his partner’s family. All is stodgily quiet until he is called to Hundreds Hall, a Downton-esque estate where his mother worked as a maid when he was a child, to treat the ailing servant-girl, Betty, who, in the end, may or may not be the “little stranger” and whose part in Faraday’s and the Hundreds’s family’s, the Ayreses’, tragedy may have played a part, or not. That is the most maddening and brilliant aspect of Waters’s novel, even reaching its final words, I wasn’t sure exactly what happened, or why.
When the novel opens, Faraday has a memory of visiting the Hall with his mother when he was ten, the then recipients of noblesse oblige, and now, a respectable doctor if not a screaming success, he strikes a friendship of sorts with the family, Mrs. Ayres, her son, Roderick, and daughter, Caroline. The estate is in desperate straits, collapsing around them; Roderick, already damaged in body and mind by the war, is desperately staving off debt and ruin. His mental collapse dominates the novel’s first half, while the second sees Mrs. Ayres’s disintegration. Faraday entangles his life with the Ayreses, first as a doctor helping Roderick; then, Mrs. Ayres; truly, however, an unhandsome middle-aged bachelor, a strangeless sexless one, he falls in love with Caroline, the novel’s centre, plain, robust, capable, facing all with equanimity, and yet, strangely mysteriously unknowable, of ambivalent sexuality. Her greatest attachments are to her family, dog Gyp, and the perpetual physical work she lavishes on the crumbling estate. It’s an odd narrative, picking up on one character or plot point and leading the reader down a sure path, only to have it end, abruptly, and never return in explanation, or revelation. The only sure points are the house, beautiful, malevolent, though also indifferent to human passions and affairs, Faraday’s greater and greater embroilment in the Ayreses’ lives, and the tiny, agitated witness, the “little stranger”, the servant-girl, Betty.
Every character, except for Faraday, with his scientific, prosaic mind, believes Hundreds Hall haunted by a presence, something that wants to possess and at the same time, hurt. It seems to precipitate unconscious actions on the characters’ parts, injurious and out-of-character. It seems to drive Roderick mad, so too Mrs. Ayres, eventually even the sober, robust Caroline. Each character is also an example of a life limited, confined within a temperament, circumstances, class, obligation, family, and place, restraints they feel but don’t recognize, or understand. Waters’s characters are inarticulate before the mystery of their own natures and their reading of their world only “through a glass darkly”. There is, in the ghostly presence, nothing more than a reflection of their own mystery, at times, dark; at times, obsessive; at others, possessive. As the Ayres, so Faraday, a boring man suddenly obsesses, overwhelmed by the need to possess the house and Caroline. Oh, there’s nothing overwrought in Faraday, but his persistence, his stiff, restrained English self, his sense of class and his daring to reach for the “squire’s daughter” as he calls Caroline, makes him uncomfortably stalkerish, out of control, unable to accept Caroline’s recoiling, which, as a reader, I found exasperating. Though Waters’s meanings remain elusive to the end, there’s one tiny little possible click in the final paragraph, something about “the little stranger” being no more than the self, nothing as greatly alien as the face in the mirror.
To offset The Little Stranger‘s creepiness and bring encouragement to these dark pandemic days, I’ve also devoted the before-bed routine to reading a lovely anthology called Darkness Is As Light, described as “a Christian women’s devotional for persisting in hard times”. It is beautifully curated by Summer Kinard and contains little deeply honest gems of encouragement, hope, and the wisdom that comes of hard-earned life experience. (Please note I received a copy of Darkness Is As Light from the publisher, Park End Books.)